A report on zero rating by the Federal Communications Commission just a week and a half before the inauguration of Donald Trump said that zero rating for ISPs and mobile network operators violates net neutrality rules. “Zero-rated” applications do not count toward data caps or usage allowance imposed by internet service providers. Forbes staff writer Parmy Olson called the report “too little too late”.
Zero rating has come under fire from many quarters. “While network capacity could become a problem if zero-rated offerings truly take off,” writes Colin Gibbs in a review of 2016 for Fierce Wireless, “the biggest challenge to the model has been claims that it’s a threat to net neutrality rules.” Last year, Verizon began offering zero rated video streaming though NFL Mobile app.
Keeping the Net Neutral
The idea of net neutrality is that everything on the internet should be treated openly and fairly. Net neutrality prohibits blocking of sites by ISPs. It prohibits throttling: ISPs should not slow down or speed up content for different services. It calls for increased transparency and prohibits paid prioritization of traffic. Before the recent FCC report, sponsored data plans – plans with zero rating – were to be judged by the agency on a case-by-case basis.
Facebook offers free internet access to underdeveloped countries with curated content. According to Internet.org, “Free Basics by Facebook provides people with access to basic websites for free – like news, job postings, health and education information, and communication tools like Facebook.” The motto of the service is “Connecting the World”.
A number of mobile network providers have taken up the practice. The first to try zero rating was T-Online with their Music Freedom offering in 2014. They followed that up with a video service called Binge On. Verizon came up with their own mobile video service called Go90. Perhaps the most aggressive has been AT&T’s partnership with DirecTV. Virgin Mobile 4G Plans Now Allow Free Zero Rated Data Use on Twitter.
Presenting the case against zero rating for ISPs and mobile network operators services, the young Mike Egan stated articulately in a YouTube video: “Zero rating isn’t about giving online services or online creators a chance. It’s about mobile carriers finding a loophole so that they can keep you even more locked into what easily becomes their new media ecosystem.”
He says that “certain services are privileged over others” and that it is one of the best ways to “kill a free and open internet”. Egan and others like him are upset, and he talks in terms of “the oppressor” versus “the oppressed”. The Federalist Society takes a different view. In their YouTube video about zero rating, they compare it to getting free samples of ice cream. “This is a way to increase the adoption of the internet,” the spokeswoman says. “All that zero rating is doing is helping to increase the competition and expanding the user choice.”
The Less Regulated Road Ahead
The “too little too late” remark of the Forbes staffer is all about the new political realities in America. Despite the recent pronouncement again zero rating by the FCC, chances are the practice will continue unabated. President Trump has vowed to cut government regulations by 75%, and the new FCC chairman Ajit Pai will likely tamp down any opposition to zero rating for ISPs and mobile network operators.
A blog post from CCS Insight says, “Mr. Pai had opposed government intervention in the telecommunications market and has been an open critic of an FCC report disapproving of zero-rating data, also known as toll-free data….” The blogger goes on to say that there will certainly be a rise in the number of toll-free data offers.
Many are concerned about the potential loss of internet freedom with zero rating. As Egan put it, “It’s a war for the future of our media landscape.” How that war plays out when deregulation sets in remains to be seen. Neutrality is a hard thing to maintain. What are your ideas on zero rating? Does your network provider bundle any of these services? How do you think it will affect the future of the internet? Please add your comments below.
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